Gollum is a pitiful creature. Not wholly evil but definitely not nice, his fate is cruelly tied to that of the Ring, his dedication to which forces him from Mordor to mountain cave and back again. Possibly the most interesting character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, many will immediately associate him with Andy Serkis’ scene-stealing mo-cap performance in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. But it’s high time the creature gets another shot.
The Lord of the Rings is told from the perspective of Frodo, and Gollum is characterised as such. But what would it be like to inhabit his mind, to know what goes on as he fights between Smeagol, the poor proto-Hobbit who stumbled across Sauron’s treasure all those years ago, and Gollum, the personality that emerges from deep within when in proximity of the Ring? If The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is anything to go by, it would be really fucking boring.
Gollum (the game) feels out of time. The graphics are dated, and while I wouldn’t mind the stylised approach rather than creating ‘realistic’ Orcs at the cost of more interesting mechanics, facial animations are contorted, textures flat, and physics unrealistic. Gollum’s legs hang rigid when he clings to a beam, his hair clips through his forehead regularly, and the entire lower half of his face sometimes moves instead of just his mouth, with audio arriving seconds later.
The glitches don’t stop there. We were told to turn off Gollum Hair Simulation (yes, that’s a real setting and yes, it should be patched in time for launch) in order for the game to run properly on PS5, I fell inside walls and ramps on multiple occasions, forcing me to restart entire chapters to progress, and jumping off the top of ladders often led to collisions with the ceiling and Gollum falling to his death. The latter isn’t a glitch so much as a design flaw: if you need the player to jump from a height, make sure the character can actually make the jump from the point at which they’re prompted.
You’d forgive all of this if there was at least a strong, Tolkien-based story to pull you through, right? I hate to be the ringbearer of bad news, but the story of Gollum is based on a couple of throwaway lines from The Lord of the Rings, and it shows. There’s no narrative tension, the first half of the game revolves around simply ‘escaping Mordor’, something that we already know Gollum did, which isn’t expanded upon in any meaningful way. I was hopeful at the beginning, as there’s a nice framing introduced as Gandalf interrogates Gollum, but nothing comes of it. We move from escaping the grey walls and red lava of an overdone Mordor, to escaping from the (admittedly more visually interesting) prison in Thranduil’s halls.
The game is as dull mechanically as it is aesthetically. The stealth missions are as dated as the character animations, forcing you on many an escort task as well as hiding in shadows aplenty. Throwing rocks to distract guards ceased to be innovative or interesting a decade ago. Platforming is similarly archaic: climb up the wall that has a certain pattern, jump from one section to another, swing from conveniently placed beams, you know the drill. It was only ever challenging when a section didn’t work as expected, a problem that was exacerbated by the fact that you’re shown a long panning shot of the precise route you must take through a level upon starting. There are no alternate paths and few interesting events.
Gollum’s decisions are the most interesting part of the game, but only due a lack of quality elsewhere rather than any inherent positives of its own. There’s a basic split between Smeagol and Gollum choices, which amount to either being nice or nasty. Share your meagre portion of maggoty bread, or keep it for yourself. Squeal on your allies who aided an attempted escape, or frame a nasty Orc prisoner. You get the picture. I tried to play as Smeagol as much as possible, only venturing into Gollum territory when absolutely necessary – to save the life of an ally and such. However, it was always easy to persuade the other half of Gollum’s brain, with dialogue options reminiscent of Harry Potter Sorting Hat quizzes that put you in Slytherin if you said you’d murder a House Elf. Sticking to one personality throughout seemed to have little effect on future decisions, however if this game was in any way fun I would replay to see the alternate consequences play out. It’s not, so I won’t.
There’s not even much for hardcore LotR fans. Seeing the inner workings of Mordor sounds fun, but in reality it’s boring because most things are shoehorned in for gameplay. Want to see Orcs bickering and the power struggles of Sauron’s senior staff? Nope, you’re herding angry cattle because we needed a minigame. The one moment that feels made for the fans, climbing the oft-memed war machine Grond, leans too far the other way and becomes shallow fan-service. I’m sure the Sindarin is all top notch – I’m a lorehound, not a linguist – but the best thing for Tolkien fans is the glossary accessed from the main menu, which contextualises much of the game as you play. But no, the Girdle of Melian is not a physical object.
Gollum is not a good game, but it does have its moments. I felt real panic as Nazgul closed in around me in the earliest stages, only to realise that this was Gollum’s capture scene and there was no way to escape. While many exciting set pieces involving fell beasts and the like are relegated to cutscenes, this captured the fear that Gollum was feeling. Unfortunately, it’s just about the only thing I felt during the entire game. Gollum’s characterisation is poor and you’ll finish the game with exactly the same feelings for Tolkien’s pitiful creature as you started with. There are more positives – character designs, too, are phenomenal interpretations of Tolkien’s descriptions, and the creepy folk horror vibes of the Mirkwood Elves is inspired – but they’re too few and far between to save this boring game.
Score: 1.5/5. A copy of The Lord of the Rings: Gollum was provided by the publisher.